Much has been said about the JNU issue. A broad range of opinions have been expressed, but there is an influential view, subscribed to by many commentators on both sides, albeit to different degrees, that the government botched up the handling of the issue. Some characterized it is as an act of ‘snatching defeat from the jaws of victory’ while others saw it as part of a larger pattern to stifle freedom of expression and intimidate those that do not agree with the government’s cultural project.
Perhaps that judgement is hasty. There is no question that the government and its administrative apparatus has hardly covered itself in glory with the way it has handled many aspects of this issue. Using a fake tweet from Hafiz Saeed, slapping sedition charges on Kanhaiya Kumar on the basis of evidence later found to be doctored, condoning the attack by lawyers on the accused on two occasions- the list of government missteps has been an impressive one.
But that may not be the most important aspect of what transpired here. There is a red hot anger that has been driving the reactions to the events that took place- and it is one that comes from a very real place. For long now, the right wing support base has nurtured fears about the intentions of the left-leaning elite. The suspicion was that the sympathy for Muslims was so great and the hatred for Modi so profound that they would actively wish for harm to befall India. When in a Left bastion like JNU, slogans were heard not only in support of Kashmir, but those that explicitly called for the destruction of India, a lot of hitherto imagined fears suddenly acquired an address. The fears got crystallised when students received support from commentators as well as politicians including Rahul Gandhi. Specific factual details about who shouted the slogans ceased to matter, having been obscured in the haze of righteous anger that followed.
The JNU issue is part of a larger process of change that we have been witness to. One is the morphing of Hindu hurt into nationalist aggression- a shift from the defensive narrative of victimhood to that of assertive target-seeking is underway. Nationalism is a more legitimate label than Hinduism and one that speaks to a wider constituency. It works better as a category of exclusion; while Non-Hindu is not an emotionally resonant label, anti-national is. It has an absoluteness that cannot be argued with –unlike categories like left/ right, upper caste/lower caste and majority/minority, where both sides can be argued for, in the case of nationalism, the other side is by definition illegitimate. To say anything at all in one’s defense becomes a sign of being anti-national.
The other shift that has been taking place is in the vocabulary used in reacting to perceived provocations. There has been a gradual escalation in the kind of language used- in today’s context, calling someone a sickular news trader might well be seen as a term of endearment, so extreme has the language become. Words are turning into actions, and having naturalized abuse as a regular part of life, we are now witnessing the gradual legitimisation of physical violence. Social media is full of references to slapping and beating up ‘anti-nationals’ as well as lauding the lawyers who ran amuck in Patiala House. A BJP MLA has called for Rahul Gandhi to be hanged- while this is an isolated voice, it represents the creeping acceptance of the idea of violence as a means of expressing anger.
These shifts seem to be part of an internal process of change rather than a reaction to external factors. After all, the BJP has been and is still trying to be a partner to a party that has supported the cause of the Kashmiri right to self-determination, PM Modi made a surprise trip to Pakistan to try and mend relations, and notwithstanding the Pathankot attack, the larger trend has been that incidents of terrorism have been at a lower ebb. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, in 2015 India saw 722 fatalities due to terrorism, the lowest ever number recorded in the 21 years that for which data is available on the site. Externally, India has projected an open and friendly image, and has shunned any sign of aggression that marks its internal reality today. Overall, nothing that would explains the upsurge of nationalist sentiment.
Nor is it that there is sufficient reason to believe that this kind of assertive polarization works to the advantage of the BJP electorally. Every attempt to polarize fragments BJP’s 2014 electoral base even as it solidifies its core base. Even an issue like nationalism, which appears to resonate strongly, has a shallow base of support. Anger against media and some institutions of the Left cannot by definition be mainstream electoral issues. The BJP adopts these issues not because of strategic reasons but because it cannot help itself. Decades of chafing under the then dominant Nehruvian narrative have created a pent up sense of anger that has now found an enabling environment and there is no way that the party can control it.
As a result, we are trapped in a project of great futility- we find ourselves in the midst of a self-perpetuating and escalating spiral of anger where nobody can win. The fault lines that have got created are almost impossible to erase. The right does not currently have the ability to replace institutions of an earlier era with credible alternatives of its own and is thus incapable of winning this battle in any constructive way. The liberal-left which is articulate and has access to media has shown that it has the ability and the willingness to put up stiff resistance. The bad news is that we are caught up in an inexorable process that will generate greater unrest and deeper social divisions and will increasingly be marked by acts of casual everyday violence. There is no good news.